China's game console ban might finally be lifted, so it's a good time to look back at the case study that was the PlayStation 2. During the course of the 13 year-old console ban, the one home console that was allowed to be sold, albeit for just a short time, was the PlayStation 2.
The fine folks over at NetEase Game's Witness section produced a great article about the release of the PS2 during the game console ban as well as the demise of the console in the Middle Kingdom. While the PS2 had over a decade's worth of gaming dominance in the West and Japan, it had a short life in China. The following is a summarised translation of the article. I also took the liberty of reorganising the article into something that makes more chronological sense.
On October 23, 2002, then Sony president Kunitake Ando held a conference in Shanghai where he told the members of the press and the audience that Sony was looking into expanding their presence in China by building and selling more electronics, including the PS2.
The PS2 had already been released two years earlier in Japan and the US, and the console ban had already been in effect for two years. On top of that, piracy and technology has made it possible for Chinese consumers to purchase a grey market PS2 and hack it to play bootleg games.
Despite the problems of the market, Sony was still interested in breaking into China. The biggest hurdle wasn't piracy; Sony had internal data that there was still money to be made in China.
"According to our internal sales data, there is piracy, as with other markets in Asia," said former PlayStation China manager Qu Shuming. "Hundreds of thousands of copies can still be sold."
Sony's biggest hurdle wasn't piracy, but the government. Due to the gaming ban in 2000, Sony was stuck in a quandary. They had to figure out how to market the PS2 as anything but a gaming console. According to former Sony China staffers, all internal and external media regarding the PS2 referred to the system as a "computer entertainment system." Games and gaming were not mentioned at all.
"Suddenly, a ban by surprise."
Later that year on November 28, 2003, Sony debuted the PS2 in China. During their conference, no one was present from the Ministry of Culture, the government ministry that regulates culture related businesses and industries in China. On December 6, at another launch conference, the Ministry was also nowhere to be seen. It turned out that Ministry support for the PS2 was being pulled.
The PS2 was to be released in China on December 19, 2003. However, Sony China was soon notified that the PS2 had been "banned in mainland China from sales and advertising of games" by the Ministry of Culture.
"The company atmosphere was very tense, everything was ready for so long, and it appeared to be a go," recalled former PS China staffers. "Suddenly, a ban by surprise... Sony executives personally flew to Beijing to consult with government officials."
The PS2 didn't make its original launch date. Instead, Sony waited till 2004 to launch the PS2 in China. Even then, there were issues with game releases, which also required government approval. In total, 10 games were released for the PS2 in China — the PS2 was also launched in Hong Kong and Taiwan at around the same time, but with over 300 titles.
By 2005, Sony had decided to finish their China experiment. The Shanghai office was closed and its employees either let go or transferred to a newly established Sony Computer Entertainment office in Beijing. Despite the opening of a new office in Beijing, there was no new talk of the PS2.